A photo of Mars taken by Curiosity shows what might be the NASA rover’s spacecraft crash-landing in the distance. If so, it ‘would be an insane coincidence,’ one engineer says.
Did Curiosity capture the galactic equivalent of the Zapruder film when it landed on Mars?
Seconds after the NASA robot’s landing Sunday night, Curiosity managed to squeeze off a handful of fuzzy, black-and-white photographs. One, taken with a device on its rear known as a Hazcam, captured the pebble-strewn ground beneath the rover and one of its wheels — and a blotch, faint but distinctive, on the horizon.
The images were relayed by a passing satellite. Two hours later, the satellite passed overhead again. This time, Curiosity sent home a new batch of higher-resolution photos. They showed the same horizon.
The blotch was gone.
Space junkies raced onto the Internet with giddy speculation about the difference between the photos.
Curiosity, the largest spacecraft ever sent to another planet, had just sailed through deep space for almost nine months and more than 350 million miles. It landed on its own, meaning scientists had no control over where, exactly, it would wind up, what direction it would be pointed in or when it would snap its first images.
After all of those variables, the space junkies insisted, Curiosity had somehow snapped a photo of its chariot crash-landing a safe distance away, as planned. The camera shutter had been open for 200 milliseconds.
The blotch did look like a billowing plume of some sort, erupting from the horizon. But the image “would be an insane coincidence,” one engineer said. Most dismissed the chatter as wild-eyed speculation and a statistical impossibility. It was just dirt on the lens, some said — maybe a dust devil swirling in the distance, but nothing more than that.
Yet a pesky fact remained. In the first photo, the blotch is there. “And then it’s not,” said Sarah Milkovich, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge and a leader of the team responsible for delivering images documenting the mission.